Nestled in Erie, Pennsylvania is a small; Catholic University boasting a water polo program that has quietly been building into a contender. Maybe Mercyhurst taking down George Washington 11-10 at the Navy Open jumped off of the page for a lot of people, but people that watch Eastern water polo are not surprised by the ascent of the Lakers. While George Washington may have been third place at Easterns last season, Mercyhurst has Eastern designs of their own this season.
Curtis Robinette took over the program in 2002 and has transformed Mercyhurst from the 0-23 finish they had in his first campaign to being a Division II power. This season, the Slippery Rock graduate may have his best team yet as the Lakers return the bulk of their firepower from last season’s squad along with an underrated goalie in Andy Sekulski. I got a chance to sit down with Coach Robinette and discuss his team and below is our interview.
1. Your squad is coming off a season in which you won the Division II Eastern Championship, shared the CWPA Southern Division/Western Region title and really scared the daylights out of some top-flight Eastern teams. I noted that most of your big guns are back for another campaign. What does your team have to do in order to get over the hump and qualify for Easterns?
This is the question I ask myself almost everyday since Southerns ended last year. We have focused on four “strategies for success” we feel this team needs to accomplish in order to reach our goal of qualifying for Easterns in 2008. The first factor is cohesion. Last season, we knew we had the talent; we just couldn’t play team ball. The next factor that we need to change is consistency. There were very few games where we played four “good” quarters. Most games we started well and finished poorly. The next obvious answer to fix the fourth quarter meltdowns is improved conditioning. The last factor is commitment. Without commitment from the entire team the first three will not be achieved.
2. Andrew Schonhoff is a player who is quietly putting together a tremendous college career. What makes him the All-American player that he is?
The easy answer is his size and strength, but Andrew’s work ethic and drive is what truly makes him an All-American player. His work ethic is applied to every aspect of his life both academically and athletically. Along with his accomplishments in the water, Andrew will finish this year as a four-time Academic All-American. His intensity in practice is contagious and his intensity in games is unmatched.
3. I watched Andy Sekulski and I thought he was one of the most underrated goalies I saw all season. Can you tell us a little bit about him and what type of player you think he can be?
Andy has all the tools to be successful. His passion for water polo and 6’5” frame allows him to make the game look very easy. I feel there is no ceiling to how good of a player Andy can become. Last season, as a freshman, he earned DII All-American and Academic All-American Honors.
4. What would you say is your offensive and defensive philosophy?
This is a tough question because it could change based on overall personnel and team strengths; however, the one offensive philosophy that has stayed the same is possession offense and limiting turnovers. Even with our fastest teams, any turnover on the offensive end usually resulted in a counterattack goal or at the very least a quality shot for the other team. Defensively, Andy has allowed us to be more creative and take more risks.
5. I noted that you coach both the Mercyhurst men's and women's teams. What would you say is the main difference between coaching the two.
The biggest difference I have found here at Mercyhurst is that men and women are motivated very differently regardless if they have the same goals. For the most part, the women are very self-motivated and carry that through their entire collegiate lives including in the classroom, weight room, and pool. The men need a competitive fire lit to push them through the season and academic year.
6. Let's say I was a junior in high school looking for a college to go to. Why should I be interested in continuing my water polo career at Mercyhurst?
Mercyhurst offers a private liberal arts education with many unique and traditional majors. We have a beautiful campus that sits on a hill overlooking Lake Erie. We offer the opportunity for high school water players to contribute right away, if not start for a quality Eastern varsity program. Our past results show we rely heavily on underclassmen, including freshman, year after year. Finally, we will have new freshman dorms opening August 2009.
7. Finally, 2002 was your first season as head coach and Mercyhurst went 0-23. In 2007, your team goes 14-9 and was ranked #7 in the CWPA at one point. What was the most difficult part of transforming this program into being a contender?
By far the most difficult part of building a program is recruiting. My first challenge was getting the Mercyhurst name out to the polo community. Next, I had to target student athletes who could make significant contributions on day one and who were the right fit for Mercyhurst so they remained here for four years. This balance made the process a little slower, but it insured consistency over several years. Recruiting has become a little easier, but my next big challenge is replacing Schonhoff and his class this year.
With that our interview with Coach Robinette ended. This season more than ever, it feels like we are going to get a few surprise teams showing up at Easterns. Mercyhurst’s win over George Washington at the Navy Open is a clear signal to the big boys of the South that they plan on being a bigger factor than ever before. It is nice to see a smaller school building up the sport of water polo and setting an example to other small schools that you can indeed win and win big with the right coach.